The Secret to Perfectly Cooked Jambalaya: Use Your Oven

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

My first trip ever to Louisiana was exactly what it should have been: a debauchery of food and drink. I'd flown into New Orleans late one night with my best friend, and within an hour of landing, we were tucking into platters piled with oysters. The next morning, we got up and headed to breakfast at Mother's before driving to our ultimate destination—a friend's house in Lafayette, where her family was boiling up 400 pounds of crawfish for lunch. That breakfast, though.

We ate as if we were never going to eat again; the fact that we were mere hours from consuming our body weight in crawfish was immaterial. The highlight of that breakfast, for me, was a bowl of jambalaya covered in a flood of debris. "Debris," I learned giddily, was the rendered fat, meat shreds, and drippings from a roast beef. That jambalaya was the best I'd ever had up to that point.

I've eaten a lot of jambalaya since, in New Orleans and elsewhere, yet I still haven't tasted it in half its forms. I've been poring over cookbooks and recipes for the past few weeks, and the variety I've found within the broad category of jambalaya is impressive. It always contains rice; some mixture of aromatics, like onion and celery; and some kind of meat and/or seafood. (At least, every version I've seen has meat or seafood, but there are enough renditions out there that I'm sure you can find a few vegetarian ones.)

The history, from what I've read, is that jambalaya is descended from paella, which was brought by Spanish immigrants to New Orleans in the early 18th century. Made with a different set of ingredients from what was available in Spain, and fused with New Orleans' particular amalgam of global influences—African, Caribbean, French, and more—jambalaya eventually took paella's place.

Two main categories of jambalaya exist: Creole (or red) jambalaya, which is associated with the city of New Orleans and contains tomato, and Cajun (or brown) jambalaya, which contains no tomato and is more common in other parts of Louisiana. The recipe I'm focusing on here is the former, with tomato.

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The "holy trinity" of Cajun cooking: onion, green bell pepper, and celery.

Beyond those two categories, though, it gets more difficult to pin down specifics. Meats often include pork (ham or sausage), chicken, shrimp, and crawfish, but oysters, turtle, duck, alligator, and more can also find their way into the jambalaya pot. Many recipes call for the "holy trinity"—Cajun cooking's signature aromatic mixture of onion, green bell pepper, and celery—but I've found examples that omit or alter some part of it. Leah Chase, the proprietor and chef of Dooky Chase, for instance, doesn't call for celery in her Creole jambalaya recipe from The Dooky Chase Cookbook; the chef John Folse, meanwhile, swaps out the more common green bell pepper for a sweeter red one in some of his recipes. Scallions, while not a classic part of the trinity, seem to be a more consistent jambalaya ingredient.

For my own Creole version, I decided to stick with some of the most common choices: a mixture of chicken, smoked andouille sausage, and shrimp, along with the trinity in its most typical form. My main task, as usual, was to drill down on the details.

Let's start with building flavor.

The Flavor Factor, or Why You Shouldn't Just Dump Everything in the Pot at Once

One of the features I've seen most often in recipes and videos for making jambalaya involves dumping a whole bunch of ingredients into the pot at once—the meat, the seafood, the aromatics, et cetera—sautéing them for a bit, and then adding the liquid and rice. What that is, really, is a recipe for insipid food.

There are two things wrong with that approach. First, you're unlikely to get sufficient browning, and browning is the result of the Maillard reaction, and the Maillard reaction is flavor. Second, you're gonna overcook your seafood like that. Shrimp need only a few minutes to cook through, not a several-minute sautéing step followed by a 40-minute rice-cooking step followed by a 15-minute resting step. I mean, if you want shrimp mush, sure, but otherwise...not a good idea.

So what's a better way to do it?

A better way is to brown in batches, building flavor as we go. For my recipe, I start with boneless, skinless chicken thighs. I picked thighs and not breasts because thighs are fattier than lean white meat, meaning they'll remain tender and plump even with extended cooking. I brown those thighs in a tablespoon of oil, which is step one in building flavor.

I take the thighs out of the pan and set them aside—they'll get diced up and tossed back into the pot a little later. Next, I move on to step two of flavor-building: adding sliced rounds of sausage and browning them, too. That sausage can be andouille, a smoked Cajun pork sausage, or chaurice, a spiced Creole pork sausage, or something similar.

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At this point, you'll likely have a bit of fond building up—that's the browned stuff stuck to the bottom of your pot. This is a good thing as long as you don't allow it to scorch, because fond is flavor. The key to building good fond while not letting it scorch, aside from controlling your heat as necessary, is to knock it back from time to time with liquid.

That liquid could be a splash of water, which will wash free all the fond stuck to the surface of the vessel, then evaporate, allowing you to let the fond build up again. Or you can do what I do here and add the aromatic vegetables. As soon as they heat up, they'll release quite a bit of their own liquid, which you can use to scrape up whatever fond is coating the pot. Just check out the photos above and below: Right up until I added the vegetables, my pot was crusted in dark brown fond, threatening to burn. Then in went the vegetables, and voilà—a clean pot all over again, with all that wonderful fond flavor mixed in.

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Next, I let all of that cook together until the vegetables begin to soften and turn golden, which is, once again, more flavor (what step are we up to here?). One small note: Adding water at any point can help keep the contents of your pot from burning, but so can adding oil. If you notice your pan has gone dry, it's a good idea to hit it with a couple tablespoons more oil to lubricate things well; that's usually more than enough to do the trick.

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The final step for building flavor is adding...flavorings. In my recipe, I start by stirring in some tomato paste, which adds a deep, sweet, concentrated tomato flavor, then round it out with thyme, oregano, bay leaf, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, hot sauce, and plenty of black pepper. We want this jambalaya to have some kick, don't we?

Only later on, once the rice is cooked and the dish is nearly done, do I mix in the shrimp and scallions, letting them cook just enough. That's how we build flavor, while still treating each ingredient with respect. The jambalaya develops layers and layers of depth and intensity, the shrimp don't get hammered, the scallions retain a trace of freshness, and we all win.

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The Rice-to-Riches Ratio

Next up is the good old question of ratios. Rice can be tricky, but as a rule of thumb, using twice as much liquid as rice by volume will more or less put you in the ballpark. Fortunately, when it comes to jambalaya, the ballpark is about as close as we need to get—unlike some rice dishes, in which you're aiming for perfectly cooked grains that are still dry enough to not stick together at all, jambalaya can be a little bit moister. Fluffy individual grains are not a requirement here. So all we have to do is ensure that all the rice is cooked through, yet doesn't come out wet and mushy. As it turns out, a 2:1 ratio by volume of liquid to rice seems to be the sweet spot.

The main thing we need to account for in this recipe is the tomatoes, which introduce a lot of liquid on their own. My solution is as follows: Start with a can of peeled whole tomatoes packed in their juice (not packed in purée—the can should say which it is in the ingredients list), and separate the tomatoes from the juice. Then break each tomato with your hand, releasing the juices hidden within the seed chambers. Add those liquids to the strained juices.

What you should have now is the tomato flesh in one bowl and the juices in another. All you need to do is add enough chicken stock to the tomato juices to give you twice the volume of the rice. In my recipe, I call for two cups of long-grain rice. That means you need a total of four cups of liquid—whatever you get from the tomatoes, plus however much chicken stock you need to make up the difference. Using this method, you'll have the right amount of liquid each time, no guessing necessary.

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In case it's not clear, the reason I'm using canned whole tomatoes is threefold. First, they tend to be better-quality than crushed or puréed. Second, canned whole tomatoes tend not to have the firming agents that crushed tomatoes do—those firming agents can prevent the tomatoes from softening as they cook, so that they never fully melt into the dish. And third, because it's easier to separate the flesh of whole tomatoes from their juices than it is to separate crushed or puréed tomatoes from them.

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Once you've correctly measured out your liquids, you can add them to the pot along with the diced chicken thighs, the crushed tomato flesh, and the rice. Season it well with salt at this point (and taste the liquid to confirm), since this is your best bet for getting an even and thorough salt distribution, as opposed to trying to stir the salt in later. Now you're ready to get cooking.

The Stirring Conundrum, Solved

Here's the final challenge of jambalaya: If you don't stir it at all, you're likely to end up with a layer of blackened, burnt crud on the bottom of the pot by the time it's done. Stir it too much, and the rice will break and dissolve into a starchy mush. I've come across whole articles online explaining the proper way to turn a jambalaya to prevent the bottom from scorching while also not gumming up the rest of it. It's nuts.

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What to do? Well, easy—put it in the oven. Unlike the direct heat of a flame under the pot, which is what most recipes I've seen call for, the hot air of an oven is gentle enough to guarantee you won't burn your rice. As soon as I switched from a stovetop method to an oven method, all my jambalaya-cooking woes went away. You literally don't need to stir it once. Well, at least, not until it's done, at which point you'll want to gently stir in the shrimp and scallions. What's even better is that you still get some awesome surface browning as it cooks in the oven, so the flavor development doesn't fall short.

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Once the shrimp go in, cook it a few more minutes, until they're done, then let the jambalaya rest for 15 minutes or so before serving.

It's hard to remember in perfect detail that first real-deal jambalaya I ate at Mother's nearly 20 years ago—it's been a while. But, having eaten so many jambalayas since, I know for a fact that this one here is a true contender. If only I could get my hands on some debris...

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